By Christian TeBordo

The spring 2023 season of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) launches this week, featuring a world-premiere performance that highlights the mingling of art, technology, innovation, and tradition that is at the core of EMPAC’s mission.

Cuando las nubes eran las olas (When the clouds were the waves) is a visual art installation and musical performance inspired by the Aula Magna, the iconic auditorium of the Central University of Venezuela. The Aula Magna is noted for its impeccable acoustics as well as its modernist beauty, and both of those aspects are largely attributable to the Acoustic Ceiling of Alexander Calder.

Calder, an American artist best remembered for his kinetic sculpture, had been commissioned by Carlos Raul Villaneuva, the Aula Magna’s architect, to design a sculpture for either the lobby or an outdoor plaza. But when he learned that the building’s sound engineers had found that the proposed design for the auditorium would require alteration to optimize the acoustics, Calder proposed bringing the sculptures inside, having them hung from the walls and suspended from the ceiling to absorb, deflect, and magnify sound.

The result was visually striking, evoking clouds, or as Calder himself referred to them — flying saucers. And to this day, the Aula Magna is considered one of the best-sounding buildings in the world. It is a major innovation in interior acoustics, as well as a synthesis of architecture, sculpture, color, engineering, and technology.

Acoustic Ceiling was also one of the inspirations for another innovation, the fabric ceiling that spans the full length of the Concert Hall in EMPAC, so it’s fitting that When the clouds were the waves will debut there.

When the clouds were the waves is a collaboration between the Venezuelan-Ecuadorian artist Ana Navas and the Venezuelan composer Mirtru Escalona-Mijares. Rather than trying to duplicate the grandeur of the Aula Magna, Navas immersed herself in the themes of synthesis and tradition, refitting the tools and materials that were used to build Calder’s clouds into playful sculptures that double as musical instruments.

She then invited Escalona-Mijares to help her bring these instruments to life with an emphasis on the process of labor and the sounds of construction. The resulting composition will be performed by American percussionists Taylor Long, Robert Cosgrove, and Clara Warnaar.

Cuando las nubes eran las olas (When the clouds were the waves) will debut in the EMPAC Concert Hall on Friday, January 13, at 7 p.m.

For more information and to order tickets, visit EMPAC’s website.